“WRITING IS NOT COOKING.”


the-age-of-doubt_2449158b
A good friend who spent time in Sicily led me to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano crime novels. As she had promised, I found THE SHAPE OF THE WATER, THE TERRACOTTA DOG, and THE SNACK THIEF delightful. These are cozies with an edge. Montalbano comes through crisply and clearly as a hero focused on solving crimes despite the paralysing rules of Italian bureaucracy. Neither his clerk Catarelli, an inveterate mutilator of the of the Italian language, nor his policemen, the nebulous Fazio or the serial adulterer Mimi Augello compete with him for center stage. His boss, the melodramatic Police Comissioner Benetti-Aldeghiri attempts to do so, but succeeds only in chewing the scenery.
Landscape often seems more important than people in Camilleri’s stories and Vigata, the town where they are set, is redolent of salt water. The sea ever present. In good weather, it is is only a few feet from the terrace of Montalbano’s house. In bad weather it is too terrifyingly close for comfort. Less threatening and far more predictable are the lighthouse at the of jetty and the harbour where he often walks after gargantuan meals of seafood at Enzo’s trattoria. This is his real territory. This is where he goes to puzzle out crimes and to ponder the vagaries of his heart.
A cozy with an edge demands a lack of vagaries. It demands short sentences spoken in a gruff voice. Montalbano, for all his quoting of Petrarcha’s Canzioneri and Umberto Saba’s poems, is no effete intellectual. He talks tough, as it is expected of him. Just in case anyone should be tempted to think he is a wimp, he refers to his testicles with great regularity. Sometimes the reader wonders if they led a separate and more important life than any of his other organs.That could be due to a remnant of Latin machismo according to which Ho testiculiI have testicles, rather than Ho un cervello, I have a brain, is an affirmation of personhood. But Montalbano does use his brain most of the time. For example, he chooses girlfriends who live away from Vigata, thus keeping them from interrupting the flow of action. And if action is measured in lento time, well, such is the nature of cozies. There must be time for the author to insert introspective monologues–not too heavy, mind you–and culinary porn.
Food plays a stellar role in the Montalbano stories. Generally, it is prepared by Angelina, a shadowy housekeeper whose only proof of existence is the  casseroles she leaves in the oven. She cooks pasta ‘ncasciatta, which, according to Diana Darrow’s blog A Year in Recipes, includes  “layers of pasta, meat sauce, fried eggplant, caciocavallo cheese, salami, hardboiled eggs, basil, and grated parmigiano…” and  platters of fish.These Montalbano consumes in staggering quantities, a death defying feat for a man who is in his fifties and who rarely exercises.No salads or fruit mar these Lucullan feasts.
After reading the first three Montalbano novels, I plunged into THE AGE OF DOUBT (L’ETTA’ DEL DUBBIO) expecting it to be the delicious voyage I needed t distract e from  the snow storm that buried  the village where I live under forty inches of snow. No such luck. Camilleri’s short sentences are still there, repeated references to testicles remain, the apparently dyslexic and mentally impaired Catarelli continues to speak a form of Italian that forces translator Stephen Sartarelli to commit painful assaults upon the English language. Commissioner Benetti-Aldeghiri continues to be a drama queen. Neither Fazio nor Mimi have evolved.Montalbano, however, has undergone a transformation. He has fallen madly in reciprocal love with Laura Belladona, a lieutenant with the Port Authority.His love sickness leads him to mope, to write letters to himself, and to blunder in the pursuit of the love object. Luckily, his emotional state does not interfere with crime solving. Only rarely does it stop him from gorging on double portions of capponata, ‘ncasciatta, pasta alla norma or with broccoli, aubergine parmegiana, nervetti with vinegar, heaps of “mullet and calamari that could have fed the station.” He devours seafood antipasto and “..since the nunatti were crisp he ordered a second side dish of them. He continue(s) with a generous helping of spaghetti in squid ink.And he end(s) with a double portion of mullet and striped sea bream.”
One of Camilleri’s flaws is that he describes food with greater clarity than he describes women with much clarity. Montalbalno’s inamorata is “beautiful… a knockout.” Wat is beautiful? What is a knockout? Another character, that of an older woman,  “…must have been close to fifty but looked forty.” Whatever does that mean? Perhaps it means that as so many older women in western fiction, she is a man eater, “a mincer,” who takes one lover after another and then discards them, the bad girl. She is central to the plot, but what seems most important about her is her sexual voracity, not her possible participation in criminal affairs. Her foil is a mousy girl who only turns into a beauty at the end of the story when it is far too late to tempt Montalbano. He is in enough trouble with his long term girfriend, his dithering lieutenant Belladona, his qualms about embarking into a sexual adventure.
“Was it right, was it honest to to be wise in the face of love’s richness?”He is so very  tempted t say no. After all, “In matters of love reason either resigns or it sits back and waits.If it is still present and functioning, and forces you to consider the negative aspects of the relationship, it means that it is not true love.” Never mind that. Forget the plot. Find a place where you can order ‘ncasciatta a la livornese and lavish servings of tabisca.If you want to read Camilleri at his best, begin with the first three books of the series.
 NOTE: Diana Darrow mentions Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri as a source of the inspector's food faves.

A SEASON OF BEGINNINGS


IMG_8266

Last year I got a  flock of chickens. In retrospect, to commit myself to care for living beings while the love of my life was dying, was a risky enterprise. At the same time, it was a necessary act, an affirmation that the catastrophe visited upon us  would not permanently wither my heart. My beloved was very much in favor of my decision. He  wanted me to savor countless  joys for myself and for him. Watching the day-old peeps grow into pullets delighted him. It reassured him that I would have  something he was about to lose–continuity.

Throughout the year, I endured many losses. A raccoon broke into a temporary coop and slaughtered several of the chickens. My adorably eccentric old cat died. Though these may seem to be tiny dramas, they loomed large in my world. I did not know than that they were but a dress rehearsal for the greater tragedy–the death of the man who had been my friend, my lover, my family, my source of passion and joy.

How I traveled from that autumn to current one mystifies me. Old friends told me that they marveled at my strength. Oddly, I did not feel strong at all. In the privacy of my bedroom,  raged, I wept, I cursed fate. My body rebelled at so my much grief and sent distress signs I could not ignore. I had a couple of anxiety attacks that landed me in the emergency room. My glucose levels rose alarmingly.  Driving anywhere gave me–and still does–palpitations. Worst of all,  I became unable to read all but a few paragraphs at a time. Even now, much to my annoyance, my concentration flags after a short chapter, no matter how well written. My own writing become a dreaded chore. Entries in the blog where I used to publish book reviews dwindled to zero. Somewhere, somehow, I misplaced my life long  love for the written word. Two novels I had barely started continue to  languish. Correspondence is limited to short e-mail messages.

Lest this become  an endless jeremiad, I want this autumn to be a season of good beginnings. That is the reason for this new blog. I want to live up to the promise I made to my beloved–I want to  be happy for both of us. I want to leave evidence of  my passage through a world that still imbues  individual experiences with a certain universality. So much of I experience goes unrecorded because I tend to think that my life is too ordinary.I want to challenge that assumption. No life is ordinary.   I want this blog to be a modest signpost to the extraordinary uniqueness of being alive, of surviving  grief and moving on  to joy.  Ideally,  want it to be a modern equivalent of Neolithic images that say, “I was here, I was present in my own life.” Unlike those who painted aurochs  on rock walls, I have this miracle, the internet.  I understand that nothing ever vanishes from cyberspace, so it is possible that a century from now someone will stumble upon my blog entries and learn that essentially, I was not that much different from his contemporaries–yet I was, as every human being is, ordinary and unique at the same time.

IMPIOUS DELIGHTS


snp
THE SERPENT AND THE PEARL
It takes courage to write historical novels. What is there to say about characters known the public knows from books and television series? Kate Quinn answers this question brilliantly in THE SERPENT AND THE, a novel about Giulia Farnese and Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI. First of all, she turns Giulia and Rodrigo into freshly minted figures about whom the reader is compelled to care.Then she adds political intrigue, elegantly restrained descriptions of love making and several challenges to preconceptions about Renaissance mores.Her stage is Rome at the end of the Cinquecento though there are forays to Capodimonte. Her Giulia is an eighteen-year-old provincial when she marries aristocratic Orsino Orsini and moves from “..simpler surroundings–the trees and lakes of Capodimonte… (to) the basilicas and loggias of Rome.” Up to then, her claim to fame is her beauty, ” ‘Breasts like white peaches, a pale column of a neck, a little face all rosy with happiness–and hair. Such hair, glinting gold in the sunlight…Dark blond, the color of crystallized honey ..shot (with) streaks of yellow-gold, apricot-gold and white-gold …that ..covered (her) in great slow ripples all the way to (her) feet.” Ecstatically happy her wedding day, Giulia finds out before long that her marriage is not quite what she expected. Enter Cardinal Borgia, whose biretta is firmly set on winning her. Despite being many years her senior and the father of several children, he courts her passionately, lavishing her with his Catalan charm plus gifts of pearls, purebred horses, and Murano glassware engraved with diamond point. How’s a girl to resist? Borgia’s courtship takes place while Rome is in turmoil. Ailing Pope Innocent VIII quaffs a daily “…dram of blood from the veins of virgin boys, as his doctors suggest, but gets no better. The Roman plebs assemble to loot the homes of the rich the moment the pope dies.As tensions mount, Giulia dithers until she meets young Lucrezia Borgia, whose pleas for her lecherous father’s cause are most persuasive. Giulia makes a decision, “…Come to me, he said…I was too breathless to reply, but not too breathless to look around…” That look is her defining moment.She becomes the cardinal’s concubine with eyes wide open.She may be biddable, but she is no victim. Carmelina, the mysterious Venetian cook who arrives on the scene on Giulia’s wedding day, is also a woman who makes her own choices. She carries with her stolen recipes, the mummified hand of a saint and a huge secret.After rescuing the wedding banquet from certain disaster, she becomes a provider of delicacies that make the reader’s mouth water: veal with morello cherries, bergamot pears with cloves, shad in a sauce of cinnamon and cloves, marzipan tourtes, crostatte of quinces and apple, lemony sardines and much more. Luckily, her patron is a true gourmande who eats when she’s happy, sad or just in between. Then there is Leonello, a small person who flings barbed comments as likely to hurt as the Toledo blades he throws with deadly accuracy. Bookish, damaged, and somber he overshadows both Juan and Cesare Borgia, Pope Alexander’s sons.As Giulia s bodyguard, but when it is time to guard Giulia from the invading French, there is no question of he must do. Readers of adventure stories will love this book and so will travelers, lovers of history, mysteries and romance. This BABETTE’S FEAST,LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and APHRODITE: A MEMOIR OF THE SENSES,rolled into one, but make no mistake, Quinn’s style is all her own. She rises to challenge of making an old story new and she does so with virtuosity.I cannot wait for next novel.

COOL AND CRIMINALLY DELICIOUS


strgled

Despite its sinister title, STRANGLED IN PARIS, a crime novel by Claude Izner, the pseudonym of  two French sisters, Lilliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, is as bonbon of  a story filled with luscious  tidbits on the architecture, art, and  notables, of nineteenth century Paris. In the course of tracking down the murderer of a  velvet masked, expensively dressed working class woman, newly married bookkeeper Victor Legris and his brother-in-law  Joseph Pignot also  search for the meaning of the the black unicorn engraved on the pendant she had been wearing at the time of her death. Two other murders follow in rapid succession, but this time the victims belong to the upper class. All  they   seem to have in common, is their membership in the Black Unicorn Society the goal of which goal is to find the philosopher’s stone.

As if this were not intriguing enough, a stellar cast of  characters  orbits  the Legris-Pignot duo–Victor’s wife, the enchanting painter Tasha,  his partner Kenji Mori, Joseph’s termagant of a mother, Euphrosine, Joseph’s  wife, Iris and a group of eccentric book lovers. They take the reader on a tour of streets where he might rub shoulders with Zola, Eric Satie, Claude Debussy and Stephane Mallarme. They serve up tidbits on concerts attended by the novelist  Huysman, whose stepfather was part-owner of a Parisian book-bindery. This is no surprise.  Besides being experts in nineteenth century Paris, Korb and Lefreve are bouquinistes, second-hand booksellers on the banks of Seine. The also seem to know the Parisian art scene inside out. Tasha’s vernissage, for example, takes place at the gallery of Deyfusard Tadee Natanson where one can imagine Misia Sert, Natanson’s wife and her coterie, which included Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir Monet, Redon, Gide, Proust, Faure,and Diaghilev. Her friends, the Nabis painters Vuillard and Bonnard were in attendance.

Art, history, humor are only a few of the delights of STRANGLED IN PARIS. The way it breaks so many of the rules urged upon English-speaking crime fiction by self-described arbiters of literary taste gives it a nostalgic flavor, as if the sister Korb and Lefevre were chaneling Dumas and Zola with their lovely long sentences and their lavish use of the passive tense.Their opening sentence is, “The storm was battering the Normandy coast” rather than the prescribed “The storm battered the Normandy coast.”The crime does not happen in very first pages, as recommended by so many how-to write a mystery formulas. It meanders through Normandy where a sailor rescues  the victim of a shipwreck, moves on to Paris until, at page 35, poor Loulou meets her doom. What follows is a convoluted plot that brings in the appalling social conditions of a century when industrialization brought prosperity to some without lifting the masses from dire poverty

There is social mobility for some. Euphrosine Pignot, for example, is a former vegetable seller at  Les Halles, recently elevated to  resident-in-chief of the Legris-Mori-Pignot household, “An imposing thickset woman, her hair drawn into a tight bun bristling with pins, appeared at the door armed with a ladle.”
‘Incomparable Aphrodite, guardian of this fairy castle, might I humbly request an interview with Monsieur Legris on a private matter?'” Thus, on page 43,  painter Maurice Laumier detaches  Victor Legris and Jojo Pignot from their book selling duties so that they can find out who did away with the beautiful Loulou of the velvet mask.In the course of their inbvestigation they come face to face with horrors middle and upper class Parisian usually ignore.
There are plenty of social ills in nineteenth century Paris–abortions are illegal but there is no safety net for impoverished mothers and their children, working conditions are appalling for those who labor fourteen hours a day at ateliers de couture, making fancy frocks for the rich,  housing conditions for the poor are dismal, “Two identical buildings…formed the outer edge of a large area in which some crazed architect had piled up flimsy shacks, mouldy sheds, and a heap of worm eaten buildings whose windows were gaping holes open to the elements and whose roofs were worn away by wind and rain. The unpaved streets gradually disintegrating, leaving large craters filled with mud and rubbish. This cramped and dirty cesspit was home to gaggles of pale children, mangy dogs, prostitutes, pimps, the unemployed, old men and tramps.” Cruelty to animals–a reliable  indication of  a dysfunctional society–is rampant. Description of the suffering inflicted on animals at an abattoir is enough to turn anyone into a vegetarian.

STRANGLED IN PARIS flows past a somber  background but  Korb and Lefevre have such a deft touch that  just like Paris itself, the story”fluctuat nec mergitur–it is tossed by the waves but it does not sink.” Sometimes, the sisters’ Gallic humor is barbed enough to skewer the pretentious of a xenophobe who thus justifies France’s imperialistic aspirations in Asia, “The Celestial Empire and its satellites have no real language– so let’s give them one.” Often, it is based on lighter material, such as why famous restaurant is called Le Lapin Agile. Rich as a Paris-Brest, this is a book to enjoy at any season, but in the dog days of summer it is a cool as a dip in the Seine.

BURNING CLOUD


o'brien

COUNTRY GIRL, Edna O’Brien’s memoirs is a book of exquisite beauty. The prologue alone is jewel that shines so softly one regrets time spent reading gaudier works. There immense emotional restraint in O’Brien’s account her visit to a National Health clinic where a nurse checked her hearing before she delivered this bombshell,
“You are quite well, but with regard to your hearing, you are a broken piano.”
O’Brien’s second paragraph is one of the most poignant I have ever read, “At home the garden was waiting, the second flowering of the roses, washed pink and blousy, but beautiful, and the leaves on the fig trees were a ripple as birds darting in and out, chasing each other, half in courtship and half in combat.” Everything a writer needs to know about graceful transition, vivid imagery, muted sadness and a fierce determination to go on is there.No self-pity, no appeal for sympathy, no literary pony tricks. Just this virtuoso arrangement of words that go straight to reader’s heart.

Verbal virtuosity is an Irish gift, so say the Irish. If that is so, this gift is one that brought O’Brien great joy and great sorrow. She was in her mid-twenties,a mother of two, married to the writer Ernest Gebler, when she wrote THE COUNTRY GIRLS, the first of her twenty-one novels. “The words tumbled out, like the oats that on threshing day tumble-down the shaft, the hard pellets of oats funneled into bags and the chaff flying everywhere, getting into the men’s eyes and their having to shout to be heard above the noise.” It took her three weeks to complete that work, which brought her instant acclaim. Gebler, whose bestselling THE PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE: THE VOYAGE OF THE MAYFLOWER had been made into a movie, grew resentful of her success. after he read her manuscript, “…he said something that was the death knell of the already ailing marriage–‘You can write and I will never forgive you.'” Gebler could not accept that the young woman he “lifted…from behind a shop counter…launching (her) into a world of literature and refinement…Though void of intellect and or cognitive powers (she)was already passing herself off as a writer.”
In fact, O’Brien had been writing all her life although when she and Gebler met, she was working at a pharmacy, “…training for a profession that was not my chosen one but convinced that I would meet poets and one day I would be admitted into the world of letters.” Ireland was no promised land for a woman of literary aspirations and then as now, a writer is someone whose work has been published. As it often happens to the published of women trapped in the pink ghetto of the print media, O’Brien’s lifestyle column for a railway magazine, was easy to dismiss. “With no time to walk the city or interview people, my topics tended to be somewhat generalized and ranged from the joys of golden autumn evenings to culinary skills for tossing a Shrove Tuesday pancake…” She adds, ruefully, “It was a long way from James Joyce.” Nevertheless the column led to newspaper articles,the first of which almost ran under the wrong byline, “My pride in having it accepted was very great, knowing that people at home would read it and my mother might forgive me my literary aspirations…..I had gone to collect the guinea due to me …There, to my delight was the warm sheet of newspaper…but my instead of my name, it was my sister’s.”
There is so much to recommend this book, that I, who love memoirs, who list Nabokov’s SPEAK MEMORY among the books I would pull out of a burning house, find myself nearly speechless.I want to say that I know of no portraits more sensitively painted that of Carnero’s, the illiterate farm hand who taught O’Brien that men can be loving. I want to talk to say that she recounts her harrowing flight from her despicable  husband with the same restraint she talks of the dreadful news she received at the Health Clinic. I want to say that the prologue of her memoirs is one of the most moving I have ever read and I have been read for well over sixty years. Most beautiful, best,lyrical, flawless, touching are the words that come to mind, but they can never match the power of this book. A master of ambience, a wizard of situations, a teller of enchanting stories also fall short of describing O’Brien as she is in this book–a woman who, upon finding out that she is going deaf, who recollects all that writing has brought her–fame, money, the friendship of women such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, as well as barbed criticism. She catalogs some of the hurtful labels applied to her throughout her career, “Bargain basement Molly Bloom…Barbara Cartland of long-distance Republicanism…. past her sell-by date as a writer” are among the insults she remembers. No matter. She lists them, then takes out a cookbook, bakes a batch of soda bread and starts writing her memoirs.
O’Brien became a writer despite her mother’s opposition, her husband’s cruelty, her fellow citizens’ harsh criticism. She wrote despite being an Irish Catholic woman schooled to do as she was told. She also wrote because few women in the world can match the primeval strength of an Irishwoman with a cause. Once she heard a man recited, upon seeing Maude Gonne on the streets of Dublin, the words Yeats had written for her,
“A crowd
Will gather and not know it walks the very street
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud.”
It seems typical of O’Brien not notice that the does not notice that  can be said of her,


The quality of news coverage of the protest movement in Brazil took a quantum leap this morning when author and National Public Radio icon Scott Simon, made it into one of the lead stories in his Saturday Edition. Simon is one the primary reason for an  audience of twenty six million to trust NPR as a reliable source of unbiased, in-depth news and commentary. That he knew the whys and when of Brazilians’ discontent is a credit to the press and a victory for Brazilians. That The Washington Post and The New York Times also distanced themselves from the pre-packaged stories about riots, vandalism and looting to focus on the real issues that trouble Brazilian society, is another victory. Corny as this sounds, democracy needs a trustworthy press staffed  courageous journalists who care to learn about the places where great social sea changes are in progress. Today, I am proud of having been part, in a very modest way_I worked for several as a freelance reporter and columnist– of a press that responds to more than the wishes of advertisers.

Normally, mine is a country mouse’s life, a life of which a character in Voltaire’s Candide would approve. I cultivate my garden. I do it badly now that I am a senior citizen with the physical limitations of my age. I persist  because I love the mysterious process of sinking a microscopic seed into to the earth to see it evolve into a plant that produces flowers and fruit, that feeds birds, box turtles and the diverse fauna of my little corner of  West Virginia. I bake bread, which is also a mysterious process for me. I make my own sourdough starter with potato broth, pure maple syrup and good, heavy  unbleached flour. I am fairly  illiterate in chemistry and I don’t know exactly how yeast reacts to sugar, how butter and oil change bread worse for the better at times and how it turns it into a heavy lump of unedible guck at other times. I bake bread the way I drive a car which is to say, I stick the key into the ignition without a clue of how the motor works. I go on trust.

Many  of us lead equally unexamined lives. We take the press, the government, the weather on trust. We plant seeds and expect them to germinate even though experience teaches us that a certain percentage of them fails to come to life. Others come to only only to succumb to dread molds, too much or too little water, too intense or too weak light.  We trust the rain to come and the sun to shine in the right proportions so that we can harvest a sufficiency of flowers, fruit and vegetables.although  we know that elemental forces are not always balanced. Last year, for example,it rained so much  in Tater Hollow that if I had been planning to make a living as a vegetable gardener, I would have had to rely on  government subsidies.
What I am trying to say is that Brazilians  have been going on trust and hope for many years. They work, they vote, they cultivate their gardens and they trust their elected representatives to do their the best for the country. In that they are no different from Americans,  Egyptians, Laotians, Turks.What is different in the present situation is that Brazilians have finally realized that democracy is not a spectator sport. They know, as we Americans do, that the quality of life does not improve unassisted any more than an untended garden produces optimum crops or flout turns into bread all by itself. They are ready to take to streets to let the government know what needs to be done to make Brazil into the socially just and economically effective country it deserves to be.

The current protest movement did more than awake Brazilians to their proper role as citizens. It  yanked me away from my complacency. It displaced gardening, baking, doing book reviews, reading leisurely, writing fiction, as the constants in my life. It made me face fears I had tucked away in distant recesses of my mind.I stayed glued to the news and the phoned. I messaged journalist, young protesters,phone and e-mailed  members of my Brazilian family.  Every time I saw the image of a policemen beating a protester I went into the fight or flight mode. I knew that the flood of adrenaline and subsequent low was  an exhausting thing at any age. Now I know that post sixty it is a major bummer. My gut reaction reaction is due to trauma, says my sister, who shares my feelings as if we were twins. A continent away,  she knows exactly how I feel. The trauma of which she speaks is that which every Brazilian my age experienced–that of having had our civil right removed by a military junta.But there have other traumas whose memory  lingers almost is as if theywere part of out genetic code. My sister and I come from a family of B’nei Anoussim, Iberian Jews who were forcibly baptised and who fled to Protestant France, the Azores, Holland and eventually, Brazil to escape the Inquisition. Many of our Brazilian ancestors were burnt at the stake in Portugal for practicing Judaism. We learnt to choose carefully  those we trust. We almost, but not quite, learnt silence. Due to our religious history, we have always known the cost of being a dissident. That is why we don’t take up causes and banner without a certain amount of reflection. But the flag of a participatory  democracy is one we embrace without reservations. Gardening and bread baking can wait. Freedom and justice  cannot.